Saturday, July 08, 2006

Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Sermon, Part 1

[This was originally posted on July 3. But I'm keeping it and subsequent installments in this series at the top of the site for now. For more recent posts, scroll down.]

On his radio show earlier this evening, Hugh Hewitt read Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which Lincoln delivered on March 4, 1865. It was given just weeks before the sixteenth president became, in effect, the last fatality of the Civil War, the conflict which was the central subject of the speech.

I was glad to hear Hugh read it. Although often overshadowed by the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural speech deserves at least as much attention because of its wisdom, insight, and unadorned eloquence.

I called to applaud Hugh for reading the address and to share my belief that if Lincoln had exegeted the United States in the Gettysburg Address, he had exegeted the war in the later statement.

In fact, I believe that exegete is precisely the appropriate verb to describe what Lincoln does in both speeches, especially the Second Inaugural Address. Exegesis is the primary discipline of a Christian preacher. It's the critical study and interpretation of a text, usually of a Biblical text. But a preacher must study and interpret more than just a passage of Scripture to communicate truth. A good preacher, my mentor Bruce Schein used to remind us, not only exegetes the text, but also exegetes her or his time.

Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth put it in another way when he said that the preacher needs to enter the pulpit with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. By this, he didn't mean that the contents of the newspaper--the things going on in the world--were as important as what's in the Bible. Christians believe that the Bible is God's revealed Word for the human race. But the effective preacher must discern what is happening in the world and apply that Word aptly.

That's exactly what Lincoln did in the Second Inaugural Address. It is much less a political or policy document--in fact, he uses the opening sentences of it to dispense with any discussion of politics or policy--as it is a theological statement. It's a sermon built on no fewer than four Biblical texts. (Matthew 7:1-3; Luke 6:36-38; Psalm 19:7-9; First Peter 4:8) (The discerning will see that I've cited five texts here. But those from Matthew and Luke are roughly parallel in what they quote Jesus as saying, although set in different contexts.)

According to James Takach, the Address was recognized as a sermon by some almost from the beginning:
Congressman Isaac N. Arnold...called [the Address] his [Lincoln's] sermon on the mount...

African Americans who heard the address understood perfectly what Lincoln was saying, and they sensed that the speech had a speical meaning for them. The New York Herald reported that the "Negroes ejaculated, 'bress de Lord' in a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence." They realized that they were hearing a solemn and profound sermon, similar to the ones that they heard so often in their Baptist churches. When Frederick Douglass met Lincoln at an Inauguration Day reception at the White House, Douglass told the president that his address was "a sacred effort."...
Lincoln's exegetical intepretation of the Civil War is that both North and South bore responsibility for the arrival of the conflict. Although Lincoln initially said that the war was about nothing more than preserving the Union, by 1862, in private conversations and correspondence, he acknowledged, as he did in the Second Inaugural Address, that "somehow," slavery was the root issue of the war.

Slavery, Lincoln asserted in the Second Inaugural Address, violated God's will. The South was guilty of practicing it. The North was guilty of complicity with it. There had to be a reckoning for slavery and the long and bloody Civil War was that reckoning. How much longer it would last, Lincoln said, was totally up to the God Whose justice was playing out in this long national ordeal.

Toward the end of our brief conversation tonight, Hugh said that he hoped that I, and any other theological types who might be so inclined, would try our hands at exegeting one passage from Lincoln's address:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
What, Hugh wondered, might Lincoln have meant when he spoke of "those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him"?

I will tackle that question. But, before getting there, we will have to trace Lincoln's argument and his allusions, both Biblical and historical. Only then will his reference to commonly-ascribed divine attributes begin to make some kind of sense. I can't claim to know the mind of Lincoln. But by tracing his Biblical and theological footsteps, I think we can reach a plausible conclusion about what he was saying in this extraordinary message. More, hopefully, tomorrow.

[Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for linking to this piece. Okay, so he called me Mark Luther. He tagged me with the wrong name, but the right denomination.]


Jeremayakovka said...

Fine comments on a speech which should be taught again and again.

Happy 4th!

John Gillmartin said...

Moving on to part 2! Interesting.